A steampunk outfit is really made by its accessories. They at once evoke the Victorian era that typifies the time frame of much of Steampunk culture, as well as adding bits of interest to your outfit. And no matter what manner of steampunk outfit you wear, you can always think up a reason why your character has been awarded a medal.
I’ve got a few medals that I’ve bought over time. My airship wings are one of my favorites, as is the George V cap badge from the Royal Engineers that I turned into a pin. (I know, not strictly Steampunk era, but close!) But I wanted something unique.
There are all manner of steampunky bits and bobs that can be assembled into a medal–wings, propellers, clock faces, keys, and of course the ever-present gears. Just google “steampunk medal” if you want to be inspired. You can also find actual vintage medals. But, I have to say, I’m against wearing actual military medals as part of an outfit. Not because I don’t respect them, but because I do. Someone was likely injured, or killed, or at least put themselves in harm’s way to earn those medals, and I think wearing them as a part of a steampunk outfit disrespects the sacrifice to some extent. First Place in the East Putnam Spelling Bee? Masonic pin? St. Christopher Medal? Go for it. But no Purple Hearts! I’ll stop editorializing now.
A typical medal consists of several parts: a pin, a ribbon, and a pendant hanging from the ribbon. Sometimes there are additional pins attached to the ribbon to represent special conditions (more gears!)
The pin part is easy. Any crafts store (in the US, Michaels is a good source) should have a large jewelry-making section. What you’re looking for is a Bar Pin slightly shorter than the ribbon you’ll use (I used 1-inch.) . Some come with an adhesive pad, but I trust my own gluing over press-and-stick.
The ribbon comes next. You want to use grosgrain ribbon, which is woven, not like the plastic ribbon used most often to wrap presents. Again a good crafts or fabric store should have a wide variety of colors and widths.
So looking around for something to hang from the ribbon of the medal, I had an interesting thought. There are literally millions of high quality portraits of British monarchs, Presidents, Kaisers, etc. all available for under a dollar, sometimes for only a few cents. Coins!
I’ve always been particularly fond of the old British penny, partly because it is so large, yet worth so little. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same size as a US Kennedy Half Dollar, a fact that will become important soon.
The coins you will find in the two for a dollar box at coin shows and flea markets are not in the greatest shape, and I did quite a bit of googling to determine the best way to clean up my penny. Most numismatist websites warn against using anything like Brasso, as they can change copper-containing coins unusual pink colors. I tried cleaning with a toothbrush and water and soap, but that didn’t do much, so I tried the Brasso and it worked beautifully. Remember these aren’t valuable coins, so I’m not irreparably damaging a treasure. The British pennies of the time are made of bronze, so they start out pretty dark, almost completely black, but the Brasso cleaned them up easily. The finish has dulled a little bit since, but it’s still OK.
So how do you attach the coins (or whatever you decide to hang from the ribbon) to the ribbon? I considered soldering a wire around the rim of the coin, but my soldering skills are not nearly neat enough. Fortunately, I discovered coin bezels, which are made for hanging coins on a necklace. You can find bezels sized for most US coins, and probably for other countries’ coins if you look long enough. As noted above, the Victorian UK penny is almost exactly the same size as a US Half Dollar, so that’s the size I bought. You can find coin bezels online; I’ve found etsy and ebay to be two good sources. Note that many bezels that you’ll find are sterling silver–a bit pricey for my tastes. Look around further and you’ll find both “silver” and brass varieties at a much more affordable price(~$1 ea). I could only find the “silver”-colored variety at the time I was making my medal, leading to a bit of a color clash with the bronze penny, but I’ve since found someone selling brass Half Dollar bezels on ebay. Slip a coin inside the appropriately sized bezel, tighten the screw, and you’re all set to go.
At this point, the ribbon gets a little tricky. Fold the ribbon as shown below, and glue only where the short end overlaps the back side (Use fabric glue or E-6000). Don’t glue the middle side to the front side to prevent glue from soaking through and making spots on the ribbon. The ribbon holds a crease pretty well. The left hand side (the short end) is glued to the bar pin. The corners of the right hand side of the ribbon now need to be folded in so that the ribbon comes to a point small enough to fit through a jump ring (again found in any crafts store in the jewelry section.) I used a larger size jump ring, 10mm, to help the ribbon fit. Fold the two corners in so you have something approaching a point. You might have to fiddle a bit to get both corners even so that the ribbon looks symmetrical, and you might have to fold the part of the ribbon that is now inside again to make the entire end small enough to fit into the jump ring.
At this point all you need is connect the two parts–the ribbon and the coin bezel–with another jump ring and you’re all set!
I hope this wordy little DIY inspires you to make medals of your own creations. I used the UK Penny because the Victorian Era is a big part of my steampunk aesthetic. But French, German, Russian, American, Japanese, any country or imaginary land is free game in steampunk as far as I’m concerned. Want to commemorate your rocketship to the Moon? The back of the Eisenhower Dollar might work. Medal of Commendation for the Egyptian Expedition? There’s an Egyptian pound coin with King Tut on it! You can even use the back side of the UK Penny to celebrate Britannia herself.
Let your imagination run wild. I’d love to see your creations!